You Don’t Know Me, But I Know You


Imagine walking down the street on a busy Saturday afternoon in New York City. Thousands of people are bustling around, going about their business, and a complete stranger suddenly walks up to you. “Hi, [insert your name here], I noticed from your Facebook page that you’re a big [insert your favorite past time or hobby here] fan. Let’s be friends!” How does that sound? Such encounters may become a reality in the not-too-distant future. In his TED talk titled, “What will a future without secrets look like?” Alessandro Acquisti explores the implications of increasingly huge amounts of data and new technologies that harness its potential. Acquisti and a team of technology experts developed facial recognition software that scans a picture of someone and compares it to the billions of publicly available pictures on Facebook in order to reveal his or her identity and access other personal information. The process is simple and incredibly powerful. Acquisti tested the app by asking college students to take a simple survey. However, before the students started the survey, he took a picture of them. As the students took the survey, the facial recognition app scanned Facebook to look for the unsuspecting survey-takers. His software successfully found 1 out of 3 students. Acquisti took this a step further by using other publicly available information from the US government to acquire non-public information like a social security number. All Acquisti needs is your face and he can find your social security number.

You should be a little concerned. Think about the implications of Acquisti’s work. First of all, the facial recognition software will only get better–it is only a matter of years before the app will be able to achieve 100% accuracy. Secondly, the amount of public data about you is not shrinking by any means. Every time you surf the internet, your clicks are monitored. Have you ever seen an ad pop up for a clothing store you were just browsing? This happens because your data is no secret. Acquisti mentions the lack of controls on your data and how companies can learn everything about you just by clicking a few buttons. This isn’t your fault, he suggests. The system we have is set up to automatically collect data, hiding behind lengthy terms of use documents that we always just skip by hitting the “accept” button.

Do you care that your data is readily available for anyone to see? We might try to rationalize the situation by saying that nothing too bad has come of it so far, so why worry? This is the same mindset that contributed to the financial crisis in 2008. We have to care. We have to find a better way. Acquisti mentions a few of the ways that we can protect ourselves against unwanted collection and dispersion of personal information. Initiatives within the technology community to combat personal data collection have given rise to products like private browsing, email encryption software and privacy preserving data mining algorithms. While these products can certainly diminish your data footprint, they will not eliminate it all together. Be wary about what you share, you never know who might be watching.




6 responses to “You Don’t Know Me, But I Know You

  1. This is such a pressing concern in a world of constant and ever-increasing data sharing. Our information is not nearly as protected as we believe. Think about every online purchase you’ve ever made. Now think: your credit card information is somewhere in every one of those company’s databases. Encrypted or not, hackers whose sole objective is to steal your identity will be able to find the right information to do so. I am interested to see how organizations recently affected by security breaches (Target, K-Mart, Home Depot, JP Morgan) will recover, regain consumer trust, and perhaps redesign their IT to prevent further hacks.


  2. While consumers might not give much thought to the clothes or electronics they browse through on the web every day, the amount of data collected by each website is incredible. This data is then compiled by data collection companies to provide quite a detailed picture of every single consumer. Imagine if this data is accessed by hackers, hackers who have access to other vital information like credit card or social security numbers that consumers have inevitably put on the internet. Companies must focus on increasing security to combat the rise in data. However, individuals must be careful and vigilant about what they reveal about themselves online. This, I think, is the hardest part, as consumers are often unaware about the dangers of technology.


    • That was one of the coolest and scariest videos I’ve ever seen. I wish there was a service for people to know find out how easily their personal data can be access and how to help re-secure it. I feel so vulnerable right now.


  3. Considering that my TED Talk was about revealing secrets of organizations I think it is interesting how secrets of individuals are no longer safe anymore either. In the future I think that the ability of facial recognition combined with wearable technology (ex. Google Glass) could lead to heavy “judging a book by its cover”. One could argue that, like in your example, this technology could increase sociability since people will be able to identify common interests instantly. If someone has made a mistake in their life though, our technology is able to instantly reveal it upon looking at them which I fear could make society very judgmental.


  4. The state of technology seems to me to make the ideas of privacy in US law and custom, which seemed in some way to be based on being anonymous, completely outdated.

    There is no actual constitutional amendment or guarantee of “privacy.” Maybe we need a new political movement to address this?

    And, in fact, what is “me?” We think of privacy often as being about our space. However, should there be an envelope of privacy around all my data? Am I more of an aggregation of data distributed around the computer networks then I am in flesh and blood?


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